[From Wood's Accout of IoM, 1811]

Chapter VI.


On the Herring and the Herring Fishery.

THE herring fishery, giving rise to the chief commerce of the Isle of Man, I shall a little enlarge upon, beginning with the natural history of the fish, extracted from the approved works of Pennant, Shaw, Bloch, and occasionally Buffon, generally retaining the language of the two former naturalists, and translating from the French that of the two latter.

The Clupea Harengus, common herring, is eminently important in a commercial view, and may justly be said to form one of the wonders of the northern world. It is principally distinguished by the brilliant silvery colour of its body' the advancement of the lower jaw beyond the upper, and by the number of rays in the anal fin, which, in by far the greater number of specimens, are found to amount to seventeen.(1) The back is of a dusky hue, or greenish cast; and in the recent or living fish, the gill covers are marked by a reddish, and sometimes by a violet-coloured spot: the eyes are large: the mouth is without visible teeth: the openings of the gill-covers are very large: the scales are rather large and easily deciduous: the lateral line is not very distinctly visible: the abdomen is pretty sharply carinated, and, in some specimens, slighty serrated: the fins are rather small than large for the size of the fish, and the tail is strongly forked. The herring is observed to vary greatly in size, and there are probably some permanent varieties of this species, which yet want their exact description. The general size is perhaps from ten to twelve or thirteen inches

Important as this fish is to the inhabitants of modern Europe, it is doubted whether it was distinctly known to the ancient Greeks and Romans? At least we find no certain description in their writings, either of its form or uses. The herring fishery is, however, of considerable Antiquity: the Dutch are said to have engaged in it so long ago as the year 1164, and were in possession of it for several centuries i and Flanders had the honour of discovering the method of preserving this fish by pickling it. One William Beukelen, of Biervlet, near Sluys, is said to have been the inventor of this useful expedient; and from him is probably derived the word pickle, which we have borrowed from the Dutch and Germans. Beukelen died in the year 1397. The emperor, Charles the Fifth, is said to have held his memory in such veneration for the service he had done mankind, as to have paid a solemn visit to his tomb, in honour of so distinguished a citizen, and, sitting thereon, to have eaten a herring.(2) The Dutch are most extravagantly fond of this fish when pickled: a premium was given to the first vessel that arrived in Holland, laden with this, their ambrosia. As much joy was observed among the inhabitants on its arrival, as the Egyptians shew at the first overflowing of the Nile(3).

The great winter rendezvous of the herring is within the arctic circle: there they continue many months, in order to recruit themselves after the fatigue of spawning; the seas, within that space, swarming with insect food in a far greater degree than in our warmer latitudes.

They commence their voyage in the Spring, and a few appear off the Shetland Isles in April and May. These are only fore-runners of the grand shoal which comes in June, and their appearance is chiefly marked by the number of birds, such as gannets and gulls, which follow and prey upon them but when the main body approaches, its breadth and depth is such as to alter the very appearance of the ocean. It is divided into distinct columns of five or six miles in length, and three or four in breadth; and they drive the water before them with a kind of rippling. Sometimes they sink for the space of ten or fifteen minutes; then rise again to the surface, and, in bright weather, reflect a variety of splendid colours, like a field of the most precious gems.

The first obstruction that they meet with in their passage southward is the Shetland Isles, which divide the shoal into two parts. One division directs its course to the eastern, the other to the western shores of Great Britain, and fill every bay and creek with their numbers, The one passes on toward Yarmouth, the great and ancient mart of herrings, proceeds through the British Channel, and afterwards nearly disappears, The other, after offering itself to the Hebrides, where the great stationary fishery is, meets with a second interruption, and is again divided et the north of Ireland. The part which pursues the western course is soon lost in the immensity of the Atlantic; but the other, which passes into the Irish sea, rejoices and feeds the inhabitants of the coasts that border it.

These smaller divisions are often capricious in their movements, and do not shew an invariable attachment to their haunts(4).

Such as escape the voracity of their enemies and the ravages of famine, are supposed to collect at the end of autumn in the northern sea, and, having left their spawn in a more genial climate, seek their former habitations under the ice. ,

The reality of the emigration of the herring, so well detailed by Mr. Pennant, begins, at present, to be greatly called in question(5): and it is rather supposed that this fish, like the mackerel, is, in reality, at no very great distance, during the winter months, from the shores which it most frequents at the commencement of the spawning season; inhabiting in winter the deep recesses of the ocean, or plunging itself beneath the soft mud at the bottom: but, at the vernal season it begins to quit the deeper parts, and approach the shallows, in order to deposit its spawn in proper situations; and this is thought a sufficient explanation of the glittering myriads which, at particular seasons, illuminate the surface of the ocean for the length and breadth of several miles at once.(6)

The reasons given by Dr. Bloch, against a belief in their emigration are chiefly these:

It is impossible that they should traverse a space of so many thousands of miles in so short a time. According to the observations of Giessler, the salmon, even in fresh water, swims only at the rate of one mile in twenty-four hours; and when the sun shines, not more than half as fast.(7)

The salmon-trout, (lavaret) when the wind is favorable, swims up the most rapid rivers at the rate of three miles in twenty-four hours; but up gentle streams it makes in the same time only half the progress(8). Herrings, having salt-water constantly to struggle with, would proceed at a much slower rate.(9)

In one or other-part of Europe herrings may, all the year, be found: on the coast of Swedish Pomerauia from January to March: in the Baltic Sea, and many other places, from March to November; about Gothland, and also on the coasts of France, from October to December.

The fishermen of Scarborough in England scarcely ever throw a net, in any season of the year, without finding a herring among their fish.

If the herring, as some allege, fly southward to escape the eager jaws of the whale, why does it proceed so many hundred miles beyond the seas, which this, their enemy, inhabits ? And why, on the approach of winter, should it return to the Arctic regions to encounter again an equal peril ?

If want of provision obliges the herrings to send out colonies, why should this want occur periodically, and always at the same season?

On examining nature attentively all these difficulties vanish. Herrings, like other fish, quit the deep waters, their usual abode, in order to deposit the spawn in places more secure; and leaving so done, seek again their customary haunts. Instinct or inclination, not the fear of the whale, occasions their change of residence.

They begin to multiply their species before they have arrived at one quarter, or perhaps one-eichth part, of their full growth; and spawn at various seasons of the year, according to their respective ages. It is possible, that the herring may spawn oftener than once a year; but this circumstance is not ascertained.(10)

The prolific quality of fish is truly astonishing. An experiment was made by a discerning naturalist to ascertain the extent of this quality in carp. He put into a pond of seven acres, free from fish, three female and four male carp: he took care to supply the water with plenty of food: and these seven fish produced one hundred and ten thousand little carp.

Polyandrism is very favourable to the population of fish; and the number of males usually far exceeds that of females.

The roe of a herring is double. That of a female of middling size weighs seven drachms, and is composed of white and very small eggs, varying in number from twenty thousand to seventy thousand.

It is the general law of animal and vegetable life, that the power and the propensity to increase the species should far exceed the means of living. The offspring of a single pair of animals would in a short time, if not restrained by adventitious circumstances, be sufficient to people the whole earth.

Hence it is, that in the general economy of nature, a violent as well as a natural death must be included.

The two means of regeneration and of destruction preserve nature in a perpetual youth, and limit the number of her productions. Both are the effects of general causes: every individual who is born falls of himself at the end of a certain period: should he die prematurely, it is because he was superabundant. How many flowers are gathered in the spring! tow many races extinct in the moment of their birth ! How many buds destroyed before they are developed !

One species preying upon another sets bounds to the number of most animals; and want of food, to that of others.

Were not herrings destroyed by men and by fish, or by birds, they would soon cover the whole surface of the ocean. The violent death would be deferred, not prevented. They would perish, by their numbers, by famine, and perhaps by contagion. With respect to other animals, the same consequences, in unequal spaces of time, would necessarily follow; aids that one should live upon another seems evidently the law of nature.

The number of herrings taken annually by the Swedes alone were estimated at seven hundred and twenty millions, two thirds of which were used for producing oil. The Yarmouth fishery, in a good season, produces one hundred and forty millions. Herrings are the prey of almost every sea fish, and of almost every sea bird. The gull and the gannet indicate to fishermen where to cast their nets. When their flight is high, it is a mark that the fish is low in the water; when low, that it is near the surface. In the heat of the day the herrings are invariably partial to the deep waters, and are lost sight of by the sea fowl.(11)

The methods of catching the fish and of curing them are different in different countries. I shall confine my attention to the customs of the Isle of Man.

Between four and five hundred fishing boats, of usually about sixteen tons burden each, and not decked, compose the Manks fleet. The season commences in July, and ends with September. In the evening, the vessels leave the harbours, and return with the fruits of the voyage on the ensuing morning. The prayer, or the affectation of it, on leaving the harbour is fallen into disuse. Of many boats, which left Port Erin the evening I was there, and on one of which I was aboard going to the Calf, the practice was not observed by any. Another custom still prevails, that of not leaving shore on Saturday or Sunday evening. Many years or centuries ago, the history of which we know only by tradition, Saturday only was excepted, and the vessels used to leave the harbour, with the setting sun, on the following day. A tremendous gale, accompanied by thunder and lightning, the signal of divine vengeance, dispersed the vessels on a Sunday night. The greater part were buried in the waves: the remainder took shelter in the recess of an impending cliff, and before morning were crushed to pieces by its fall. The dread of a similar fate is sufficiently strong among the seamen to prevent a repetition of the practice.

The nets are buoyed up by inflated bags of dogskin, and the fish are caught chiefly by the gills To be able to bring to shore from ten to twenty thousand herrings is considered a good night's work for each boat. After a successful voyage, the fishermen get so intoxicated, that the ensuing night, however favourable, is usually lost. The produce is divided into three more shares than the number of fishermen. Every fisherman is entitled to one share: the owner of the boat to two shares, and the owner of the nets to one. Frequently the nets belong to some of the boatmen, and occasionally the boat. Two seamen and four countrymen are the number usually employed. From two to threes thousand of the latter annually exit their inland habitations for the sea-ports, for the three or four summer or autumnal months. They leave their wives to turn the soil, to reap, to thresh, and dig potatoes; and having reserved a considerable number of herrings for the year's consumption, feast and get drunk with the produce of the remainder. Many of the Irish, when the butter does not appear in due time upon the churning of the cream, ascribe their ill success to the machinations of some evil-minded witch. The Manks fishermen, who unfortunately return with a boat unladen, ascribe their's to the same cause. To dispel the charm, they set fire to a bundle of dry heath, or furze, in the middle of the boat. They light by the flames whisps of the same material, and apply them to every part of the interior of the vessel. By boys and girls the herrings are conveyed in baskets from the boats. The first operation is to make an opening with the knife, and clear away the intestine, if 'the fish be designed for a warm climate; if not, it is frequently dispensed with. In this country they serve only to enrich the land, or feed the gulls; but in Sweden they are boiled for oil.

Those designed for red herrings are piled up with a layer of salt between each row, and thus left for two or three days. They are then washed, are hung by the mouth upon small rods, and placed in extensive houses built for the purpose; sometimes so large as ninety feet by sixty, and from fifteen to thirty feet high. The length is divided into several apartments, and here the rods are arranged in rows, almost close together from the roof of the house to within eight feet of the floor. Underneath are kindled many fires of dry wood and roots of trees, which, for three, four, or five weeks are kept constantly burning. When sufficiently dry and sufficiently smoked, they are, in great regularity, put up in barrels.

For white herrings the process is much more expeditious, and is usually performed on board of vessels lying in the harbour The fish are by the women rubbed well with salt, and left in heaps till the following morning. They are then in equal regularity packed in barrels, with a layer of salt between each row.

Much of the excellence of a herring is thought to depend upon its being salted immediately after its being caught. The Dutch, and the Scotch imitating them, have adopted the practice of salting their fish on board the fishing vessels, and of throwing overboard, at sun-rise, all that are remaining fresh.

The number of herrings annually cured in this country is subject to considerable variation. The average may, probably, be between eight and ten millions, being some years double this quantity, and some years only half. In the years 1787, 8, 9, and 90, twenty-nine millions were exported The present price of fresh herrings varies from 12s. 6d. to 20s. per maze of thirty score. On the 13th July 1667, they were so abundant as to be sold at 6d. per maze.

Formerly praemia were given to the owners of the most successful boats; and certain bounties upon all that were exported to foreign lands; but both are discontinued.

The gobback, or dog-fish, preys upon herrings, and is often taken with them, rendering great damage to the nets. It abounds in oil which may be profitably extracted. Of the voracious animal itself many of the lower orders of people are extremely fond, and account it a rich delicacy.


1 Mr. Pennant says, the usual number is fourteen.

2 Shaw's Zoology, Vol. v. Ichtyologie par Bloch, Berlin, Vol. i. p. 150

3 Pennants British Zoology.

4 Pennant's British Zoology,

5 Bloch, Vol. i. p. 151.

6 Shaw

7 Giessler, p. 113

8 Bloch, Vol. i. p. 133.

9 Bloch, Vol. i p. 151.

10 Buffon

11 Bloch.


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